Barbara Vobejda decides what The Washington Post’s front page and breaking news stories will be every day.
The center of gravity in The Washington Post headquarters is “The Hub,” a ring of desks in the middle of the newsroom. The 14 people who sit here are running the main pages on all platforms – A1, the home page, the tablet app and the mobile app. It’s where journalism’s past and future merge into one mélange of digital editors, page designers, photo and managing editors.
In the middle of it all sits Barbara Vobejda (Jour’75).
Since 2012 she has been the paper’s Page-One editor. Vobejda decides which stories readers will first lay their eyes on when they pick up one of The Post’s more than 450,000 daily copies or when they visit the paper’s homepage.
“Barbara is one of a small number of people who is trusted to run the day here at The Post,” says universal news editor Eric Rich, who oversees the web content and works closely with Vobejda. “Editors and reporters around the room look to her to weigh in on and ultimately make decisions about all kinds of important and sometimes thorny issues.”
To name just a few — is a story or headline fair? Should the name of a suspect be published? Should the paper send a reporter to an overseas news scene or cover the story from the newsroom?
Like Vobejda, Rich also sits in The Hub.
“In many ways, it functions like an air traffic control tower,” he says. “It’s staffed 24/7. It’s busy most of the time. It’s where decisions are made about things like calling elections.”
In April The Washington Post cashed in on yet another year of successfully shaping international news, adding two more Pulitzer Prizes for the coverage of the National Security Agency’s secret surveillance activities.
When the paper first broke the story on June 6, 2013, it was Scott Vance, the deputy managing editor with whom Vobejda trades running the day, who received the go-ahead from executive editor Martin Baron to publish.
Vobejda says it was never a question whether the NSA stories would run on the front page. They all did.
“The President himself changed policies as a result of the revelations,” she adds. Changes include the Obama administration tightening access to surveillance agency records.
A couple of years ago, readers of the printed paper would have been the first to learn about stories such as the NSA revelations. Not so today.
“We have moved away from breaking stories in print,” Vobejda explains, noting the digital revolution in journalism led to a job title change last year when she went from “A1 editor” to “news editor.”
Deciding what will be the lead story often takes all day. After a story meeting in the morning, Vobejda keeps a running list of candidates as the day goes by. What’s on the list in the morning might have dropped off the edge in the afternoon.
“A wide range of journalists enter The Hub on any given day, pitching, lobbying, pleading, alerting, arguing for play on the homepage, for more space, for A1-consideration,” says managing editor Kevin Merida. “No one is ever shy about coming to see Barbara. She is most accessible, firm but welcoming. This is one of her great gifts. She has the respect of reporters and editors, as she has worked closely with so many of them.”
Barbara is one of a small number of people who is trusted to run the day here at The Post.
A good Washington Post page one that captures people’s attention, Vobejda says, has compelling photography and a good mix of international, national and local stories.
“Barbara brings a wonderful energy and insight into the A-1 process,” says Greg Manifold, The Post’s design director. “She’s open to ideas and concepts for the page. She’s constantly
soliciting opinions and feedback about the mix of stories and the elements on the page. She makes it a true collaborative effort.”
When Vobejda goes home at around 8 p.m. each night, after 11 hours in the newsroom, her workday isn’t over. In fact, it never is. The news never stops breaking.
“I continue to check email from home, answer questions and respond to any further news that happens,” she says. “That means I am often thinking about stories, and the news, long after I leave.”
This year marks Vobejda’s 30th anniversary at The Washington Post.
After graduating from CU-Boulder, she moved to New England to work at the Newburyport Daily News in Massachusetts for a few years before taking a job as the first female sports reporter at a local newspaper in Honolulu, Hawaii.
Starting at The Post in 1984, she worked as a part timer on the copy desk before moving on to cover local and national education issues and later to report on social policies.
A dozen years on The Post’s national staff came to an end when she joined the paper’s investigative team — first as a reporter and later, in 2000, as an editor. It was during that time that she worked closely with Jeff Leen who still leads the investigative unit.
“Barbara is a brilliant word editor who cares deeply about the news and focuses sharply in each story on those elements most likely to be of interest to the readers,” Leen says.
During the 2008 and 2012 presidential election cycles, Vobejda worked on the paper’s campaign coverage. A few days after Barack Obama won re-election in 2012, she ascended to her current throne at The Hub.
Two years later the industry is still in the process of reinventing itself digitally. But The Washington Post newsroom is buzzing with excitement and anticipation.
The reason? Jeff Bezos. The Amazon founder bought the paper last year for $250 million.
“[Bezos] has given us a little leeway, the financial backing to experiment,” Vobejda says. “There are resources available to do new things digitally.”
The paper since expanded its online staff. In March it started the “Morning Mix,” a series of stories put together overnight that online readers can catch up with first thing in the morning.
Regardless of which platform the story runs on, the quality remains high.
“When the story comes in, I make sure that it’s told in the most understandable and engaging way that pulls the readers along,” Vobejda says. “In addition to these mechanics, you need to help the reporter strive. A lot of being an editor is being a teacher.”
But to survive — and enjoy — breaking news day in, day out, with marginal hours of sleep, is not just about being a good mentor or a hard worker. It’s being a team player.
Just ask Eric Rich.
“The web operation can require decision-making and editor-level guidance any time of the day or night,” he says. “Days often start before 7 a.m. and go into the night. Barbara has got a lot on her plate as well, but she recently offered to be available to digital folks one morning a week, so I would have guaranteed uninterrupted time with my kids that morning. This was a big help to me, and it was typical given how generous and fair-minded she is.”
Photography by Marlon Correa, The Washington Post (paper); Linda Davidson, The Washington Post